Escape Key

Woody Leonhard, the reigning maven of Microsoft Windows, has abdicated. When his publisher asked him to write yet another edition of Windows 10 All-In-One For Dummies, Leonhard pressed his escape button, jumped out of Windows, and renounced anything to do with computers.

Rumor has it that he is living on a mountaintop in the Far East, where, 100 years ago, the village leader declared electricity and telephones taboo.

I sent a homing pigeon to Leonhard to ask for an interview. But, according to unreliable sources, as the pigeon passed over Manhattan, it homed in on the statue of Alice in Wonderland in Central Park. It was last seen near the bronze Alice, sitting on the mushroom, futilely waiting for the Caterpillar.

So why am I telling you this? Leonhard’s escape got me thinking about computers and the language associated with them.

Bryan Garner wrote (in Garner’s Modern English Usage) about “Computerese, the jargon of computer wizards … making inroads into standard English. Thus access and format and sequence have become verbs, input has enjoyed widespread use as both noun and verb.”

“Making inroads” set off an alert. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives two current senses of inroad:

A hostile incursion into a country; a raid or foray.

transferred or figurative. A powerful or sudden incursion; a forcible encroachment.

As if that weren’t enough, Garner added: “No one can rightly object, of course, to computerese in computing contexts, where it is undeniably useful. But many computer terms have acquired figurative senses, thereby invading the general language.”


I sense an underlying hostility in computer terminology such as “control,” “execute,” and “hack.” I asked Ben Zimmer, The Wall Street Journal’s lingwizard, what he thought about my idea that computer jargon was inherently aggressive.

He said it was a stretch.

OK, so a linguist I’m not. But a writer I am. And as a writer, I hear nuances in words that can’t be quantified.

I almost said, “I keep my ear to the ground to listen for hoof beats.” But besides being cliché (to mangle a 1935 quote cited by the wordsleuth Barry Popik), only in politics and Picasso paintings can one sit on the fence and keep both ears to the ground.

Introducing the novel bearing his name, Huckleberry Finn spoke about an earlier book where he first appeared: “That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

A “stretch” might be a flight of imagination — akin to free association. But it’s different from fabrication. Dialectics is the art of disputation, arriving at truth through logical debate. I’d call the writer’s stretch autodialectics — internal dialectics.

Stretching exercises are good for you. So let’s stretch those mental muscles and get our synapses firing.

I asked a computer-expert friend what he thought. His answer was, “Yes, but it’s deeper than that.” Computer jargon grows out of actual real-world nomenclature. Unlike a typewriter, which just puts words on paper and its “Shift” key literally shifts the platen to enable typing capital letters, computers have a “Control” (Ctrl) key that turns regular keys into computer commands.

This is a new world. And it isn’t brave.

A New Yorker cartoon showed a hand coming out of a computer screen, with the caption, “Where’s that … ‘escape’ key?” The Esc key grew out of the need to “escape” from a programming glitch leading to an “infinite loop” — instructions that never terminate normally. In extreme cases, you have to “kill” the process.

People confuse hackers with crackers. Hackers “hack” into a system to modify it to do new tricks — or to serve their own purposes, playful or sinister. Either way, hacking is antisocial, running the gamut from mischievous to malicious.

OED cited the 1725 New Canting Dictionary of thieves’ slang in a definition of “crack” — to “break open.” Crackers are cyber-safe-crackers. (Some crackers have become cybersecurity consultants. Who would know better? As the Yiddish proverb says, “Az men darf dem ganef, nemt men em arop fun der t’liye — If you need the thief, you take him down from the gallows.”)

But the interaction of language and technology goes yet deeper. Neil Postman wrote in Technopoly — The Surrender of Culture to Technology:

“Language itself is a kind of technique — an invisible technology — and through it we achieve more than clarity and efficiency. We achieve humanity — or inhumanity. The question with language, as with any other technique or machine, is and always has been … who is to be the master? Will we control it, or will it control us?”

The danger, Postman said, is that technology “tends to function independently of the system it serves. It becomes autonomous, in the manner of a robot that no longer obeys its master.”

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had my own escape. My phone company warned me that my old dumbphone is about to be decommissioned. But they gave up trying to force a smartphone on me after I replied by carrier pigeon. The good news is that they’re sending me a new flip phone.

I just hope it doesn’t wind up in Central Park.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to